Fight over Georgia election rewrite now heads from Legislature to new fronts

Ann White of Roswell holds signs protesting against Georgia's new law revamping the state's election system. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Ann White of Roswell holds signs protesting against Georgia's new law revamping the state's election system. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

The battle over Georgia’s sweeping rewrite of election rules now shifts to the courthouse, the campaign trail and the halls of Congress after Gov. Brian Kemp quickly signed into law the Republican-backed overhaul that imposes new voting restrictions.

Voting rights groups filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the changes hours after Kemp’s closed-door signing of the measure, claiming they amount to a “grab bag of voting restrictions” that violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

With promises to exact revenge at the ballot box next year, potential Democratic candidates quickly vowed to expand voting rights in 2022. Republicans, meanwhile, said the law restores integrity to an election system battered by false claims of systemic voter fraud.

President Joe Biden on Friday called the law a new “attack” on voting rights in Georgia, signaling that it would become a focal point in his push for Congress to pass a far-ranging federal package that would override state restrictions.

And the arrest of state Rep. Park Cannon provided a visceral symbol of backlash to the measure, as wrenching images of the Black Democrat being forcibly dragged from the Statehouse by authorities were juxtaposed with a picture of Kemp signing the bill surrounded by white Republicans.

Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by Republican legislative leaders, signs into law Senate Bill 202, an overhaul of the state's election system.

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“What’s the purpose behind all of this? You’re literally going to make public policy based on a lie? Based on the feeling that some people have that things didn’t turn out the way they should turn out?” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said.

“This is democracy in reverse, where politicians have decided instead of the voters picking their representatives, the representatives have the right to cherry-pick their voters,” he said.

Warnock and other Democratic opponents of the measure see a strategic campaign by Republicans to limit the right to vote after record-smashing turnout fueled Democratic wins in Georgia’s presidential election and the sweep of two U.S. Senate runoffs in January.

Conservative groups praise the bill as an imperative in an increasingly competitive state such as Georgia, promoting falsehoods about widespread election fraud that have been rejected by top state election officials and dismissed in courts at every level.

”With how narrow the margin of victory is in elections today, it is critical that states like Georgia take the lead and pass legislation that ensures that Americans are not disenfranchised by illegally cast ballots,” said Alex Brandon of FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group.

Pressure spreads

The backlash has spread far beyond the Gold Dome, to protests at corporate headquarters and boycott threats of Georgia businesses who opponents of the measures say have tiptoed around forceful criticism of voter restrictions.

The fallout overshadowed the victory lap that Kemp planned for a sweeping overhaul that limits ballot drop boxes, imposes new ID requirements for mail-in ballots and grants the Republican-controlled Legislature more influence in local election matters.

The governor signed Senate Bill 202 into law behind closed doors roughly an hour after it cleared the Georgia Legislature, a hastily arranged move intended to thwart mounting public pressure urging powerful companies and influential civic leaders to oppose the bill.

Citing a “crisis of confidence in the ballot box here in Georgia,” Kemp said the changes would secure the vote by requiring absentee voters to submit driver’s license numbers or other documentation and mandating that ballot drop boxes be located inside early voting locations.

“President Biden, the left and the national media are determined to destroy the sanctity and security of the ballot box,” Kemp said Friday.

There was no evidence of widespread absentee ballot or drop box fraud, according to state and county election officials. Presidential election results were verified by hand and machine recounts of paper ballots.

The governor and other Republicans also pointed to changes that expand weekend voting before general elections by requiring mandatory voting hours on two Saturdays statewide, though early voting before runoffs will be reduced to as little as one week, down from the current three-week requirement.

“I know those who choose to monetize this issue will continue to pound the drums of division and discord, but I think the process has worked,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge.

Critics of the measure seized on other provisions in the law that shorten the window to request absentee ballots until 11 days before an election, disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct and ban groups from distributing food or drinks to voters waiting in lines.

Another dramatic shift would allow state takeovers of county election boards deemed problematic, which critics say could pave the way to allow Republican officials to decide which ballots count in heavily Democratic counties with a history of elections issues.

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan said the state's new election law “is absolutely about opportunities, but it isn’t about the opportunity to vote.” Jordan, who is expected to launch a campaign for attorney general, added, “It’s about the opportunity to keep control and to keep power at any cost.” (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution /TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“This bill is absolutely about opportunities, but it isn’t about the opportunity to vote,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Sandy Springs who is expected to launch a campaign for attorney general. “It’s about the opportunity to keep control and to keep power at any cost.”

Mistrust in the presidential election came from Republican politicians who echoed then-President Donald Trump’s skepticism about the results on Georgia’s new voting system, authorized by the General Assembly in 2019.

Courts and Congress

Before Thursday’s lightning-fast legislative action, lawmakers in Congress were already spotlighting Georgia as a prime example of the need for new federal election laws to override state-level restrictions.

But the new Georgia law is likely to intensify pressure on Democrats to pass a far-reaching bill expanding voting access, tightening candidate fundraising rules and requiring independent redistricting. Biden called it an “atrocity” and singled out the ban on offering water and food to people queued in long voting lines.

“This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end. We have a moral and constitutional obligation to act,” Biden said, adding that he’ll launch a public campaign to appeal to voters — “including Republicans who joined the broadest coalition of voters ever in this past election to put country before party.”

And almost as soon as the ink could dry on the new law, the New Georgia Project and other voting rights groups filed a lawsuit arguing the restrictions “lack any justification for their burdensome and discriminatory effects on voting.”

The complaint urges a judge to halt absentee ID requirements, drop box limits, provisional ballot cancellations, and the ban on “line warming” that allows groups to offer food and drinks to people queuing to vote.

“Regardless of how hard Georgia Republicans try to cheat their way back into power, it will remain a blue state,” said Nse Ufot of the New Georgia Project. “We will continue to fight, and we will not back down to Republican fear mongering, lies and blatant attempts at voter suppression.”

Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said the lawsuit was promoted by Democrats as a “false narrative in order to dismantle our elections process,“ and she charged critics of being opponents of more transparency.

Business groups, meanwhile, faced new demands from voting rights advocates to more forcefully oppose barriers at the ballot box as a key Major League Baseball union official said players are open to moving the annual All-Star Game from Atlanta this summer. Several of the companies, along with the powerful Metro Atlanta Chamber, touted the expansion of weekend voting and the preservation of no-excuse absentee balloting — both targeted in earlier versions of the measure.

“Still, concerns remain in our region and across the state with aspects of SB 202,” the chamber said.

Add to the volatile mix the arrest of Cannon after she repeatedly, and gently, knocked on a door outside Kemp’s second-floor Capitol office while he was delivering livestreamed remarks about the measure as authorities insisted that she stop.

As Kemp abruptly cut off his prepared speech, authorities outside his office dragged Cannon out of the building and later charged her with two felony counts, prompting an hours-long vigil outside the jail attended by Warnock and other Democratic leaders.

The footage of Cannon’s arrest quickly spread on social media, galvanizing more attention on the tactics that Stacey Abrams, a likely challenger to Kemp in the 2022 governor’s race, called a “reminder of Georgia’s dark past” and Warnock framed as a desperate attempt to “squeeze the people out of their own democracy.”

Cannon, who was released on bond around midnight, has said she did nothing wrong, and her attorney invoked state law that says legislators are “free from arrest during sessions of the General Assembly” except for charges of treason, felonies or breach of the peace.

That law is now under federal scrutiny after then-state Sen. Nikema Williams was arrested during a 2018 protest in the Capitol Rotunda. The charges were later dropped, and Williams, now a U.S. House member, filed a lawsuit to bar further use of the law.

Shortly after her release, Cannon said the election law was “direct retaliation” for Democratic victories in Georgia.

“We will not live in fear and we will not be controlled,” she said. “We have a right to our future and a right to our freedom. We will come together and continue fighting white supremacy in all its forms.”

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